From Pat Brown's 10th-floor apartment in east Beijing, one can enjoy a panoramic view of Chaoyang Park, the largest green space in the city. But the only view that many of Mrs. Brown's Chinese visitors are seeing these days is the inside of a conventional oven.
Mrs. Brown, who's from Galesburg, Ill., arrived in China's capital city almost two years ago with her husband, who's an executive with Motorola. "When I was trying to think of a way to keep busy," she says, "I realized that ovens and baking seemed to be a Western way of cooking. I decided to see if I could find someone in Beijing who would be interested in learning from an American grandma."
She put a classified ad on an expatriate website for Beijingers, not knowing what to expect. Soon she began to see a trickling of students signing up.
For Wang Gui Ping of Hunan Province, who is now working in Beijing as a consultant for a consumer research company, baking has become a fascination. "American baking is kind of new and different from Chinese food," she says. "For me, it is not easy to resist the attractive pictures of the cookies and cakes."
Few Chinese bake at home because most residences in China don't have an oven in the kitchen. "Baking in Chinese homes is not very popular," Ms. Wang explains. "Chinese do cook a lot of oily and salty food, but [use] much less butter and sugar."
Although the majority of the 12 students Brown hosts each week in three different baking classes are Chinese, natives of other Asian nations such as South Korea and Indonesia also sign up to learn how to make ever-popular American cheesecake or pizza.
Not all of Brown's students fully grasp the concept of baking right off the bat. With new vocabulary words such as teaspoon, baking powder, preheat, and baking pan, it may first come across as information overload and take some time to digest.
"Sometimes what I show them is so overwhelming they just go along with the fun, like showing a child a butterfly emerging from a cocoon and the child just accepts that the butterfly is beautiful," Brown says.
In addition to supplying hands-on experience in the kitchen, she also makes it a point to teach students about American-style ingredients. That may include a class trip to a supermarket that carries imported products.
Although there is a minimal fee of between $12 and $30 (to cover the cost of the ingredients), Brown doesn't see this as a business venture. Instead, she thinks of the baking classes as an exchange between different cultures. "I want to show the warmness of an American home, to bring friendships together, and to explore something ... I have never done before," she says of her goals.